Glee’s Legacy

Type in Glee in your search box and click on any article and scroll down to the comment section, the results will most likely not be pretty. The show was far from good, and continuity and verisimilitude went out the window very early, if not immediately. This show tended to be superficial too often and found a whole new way of defining deus ex machina (or should that be Sue ex machina? Redundant? Probably!). A television series that lasted six seasons couldn’t keep track of the ages of its characters, their relationship status, or even the basic laws of nature sometimes. The hate is strong with this one. The levels of hate the show seems to have received appears to be more due to a feeling of being wronged than to anything else. People feel cheated. Glee arrived as a force to be reckoned with, and when the results didn’t meet the expectation, well, powerful internet-fuel vitriol was born. Accuses of jumping the shark and attacks on the characters came often and seldom isolated. It wasn’t the perfect show people wanted, and silence wasn’t an appropriate response from the fans.
It must be said that anyone familiar with Ryan Murphy (Glee‘s creator) and his past (and present) television oeuvre knows that this isn’t atypical. Popular, Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story: none of these shows can be praised for their continuity or logic. But I digress…

Glee ended for good on Friday. After six seasons the show came to a conclusion that will probably not appease everyone. Not that there are many to appease. Glee has lost a large portion of its viewers over the years, with a fraction of its original fandom still intact. This piece is not a defense of the show or its storylines. They were, many times, indefensible and ludicrous and any attempt to state otherwise would be futile and misguided. What I will say, though, is that as imperfect as the show was, it was also an important show and what it did matters, and its legacy and effects will (hopefully) continue to affect television and society in years to come.

One very common statement that people make to disparage this television program is that Glee‘s sole purpose of existence was to further “the gay agenda”. I just would like to point out that said agenda has never been discovered, yet people seem to be sure of its existence – every time I hear this term I imagine a terrible Dan Brown novel in which Robert Langdon investigates all the clues until unearthing some document (probably by the Illuminati, because he doesn’t have much imagination and continuously retreads on his previous literary tracks) that finally proves that the conspiracy really does exist. But aside from the conservative talking heads that must find ways to be only laterally homophobic, the attack is ridiculous. That said, Glee was a very gay show, and I mean that literally and enthusiastically. Several characters identified as gay during the course of the series. Storylines about coming out, being outed, coming to terms with one’s sexuality and self-hatred dominated several of the seasons. But it wasn’t the only sexuality represented. Bisexuality was acknowledged as something more than a phase or an excuse. There wasn’t just one, but two transgender characters were introduced throughout the show, in fact a few weeks ago one of the episodes concluded with a choir made up of dozens of trans men and women singing together.

While the show’s contributions to the visibility and representations of members of the LGBT (not so much the QI) community are already commendable, this teen dramedy didn’t stop there. In a network television world in which most shows still seem to take place in an alternate world made up solely of caucasians, people of color very often took center stage. Black, biracial, east-asian, south-asian, and latino characters were not only relegated to comic relief or the background, instead being central to many, if not most, storylines, driving the plot, all the while not being essentialized in their ‘otherness’ and difference. Such diversity is usually only seen in large ensemble shows like Grey’s Anatomy and The Walking Dead (and in the latter’s case, for every new character of color introduced two, or three, are killed off), teen shows tend to be a lot less diverse.

Why stop there? One of the series’ main cast members (with the exception of fantasy sequences) was in a wheelchair for the entire series run. An actress with Down syndrome wasn’t only an important character in the show, but the role was not condescending or infantilizing towards her, as is usually the case – she was cast as an antagonist to the choir kids and was effectively a bully (with Helen Mirren’s voice for internal monologues to boot).

Religion wasn’t skirted either. The show’s protagonist (Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry) was Jewish, as were other characters in the show. Catholicism and latino culture were explored in the show’s last two seasons. When a large majority of the media paints Christianity and the choice to remain virgins until marriage with an eye-roll and as an object of ridicule, Glee celebrated it as a viable choice, however awkward its execution.

Awkward is the most effective way to describe the intent and effects of this show. Were all these representations perfect and unproblematic? Of course not. Again, not even close. We don’t always get the representation we want or deserve. Many times I watched the show cringing, wishing it would have explained things differently, fleshed out an argument and unpacked it better, explained further the repercussions of certain decisions or choices. I had to remind myself, though, that it was at least attempting to do something more, and yet entertain at the same time. Issues weren’t skirted or ridiculed as they so often are, and for that the show was important. It would be a mistake to assume that Glee broke ground on many of these issues and led the pack – of course not – it owes its very existence to so many forbearers and activists that did more than produce/star/write/direct a show about kids who love to sing.

The show tried to speak to the struggles of coming of age and the feelings associated with being ostracized. Very often it did so imperfectly and with a “very special episode” tone (with topics such as teen pregnancy, school shootings, suicide, loss, etc.) that was heavy-handed and preachy. But it was also hopeful and funny and escapism to a world in which people who belonged nowhere else had one special place to meet and be themselves. For these reasons Glee was important, and what it did mattered.

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